A Guide to Southern New Mexico Chile

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Man roasting chiles at Hatch Chile Festival.  Photo by Sunny Conley.

Welcome to Southern New Mexico! You have ventured upon the hottest spot in the U.S.A. I’m not talkin’ solar heat. I’m talkin’ chile fire.

Chile peppers are the Land of Enchanters’ mysterious and highly addictive vegetable that may cause brows to sweat, noses to run, eyes to tear, and alas, guttural hiccups upon overdose. It’s a painfully pleasant experience we welcome many times daily.

Not only do we devour the hot little number but we chile chat ceaselessly. The noble chile plant has played a passionate role in New Mexico’s culture and cuisine since the early 1600s when the Spanish first planted along the fertile Rio Grande valley. Hundreds of years later, the powerfully pungent pod remains dear to New Mexicans. Although chile is now grown worldwide, New Mexicans self-assuredly declare “our pods are peerless.”

When I arrived from native Michigan to this chile kingdom a decade ago, the only pepper with which I was acquainted was the sweet, but no heat, red and green Bell. Little did I know that Bell’s next of kin would offer such savage euphoria. I now use the mojo in just about every dish I prepare. Indeed, as I key in these words, I savor popcorn lavished in red chile powder. (And I don’t go the movies without it.)

I admit, I’m a slave to the chile knight whose colorful armor ranges from yellow to green to red and to black. Some are long, slender and no thicker than a swizzle stick while others are rotund and nearly spherical. They vary in length from 1/2 inch Lilliputian to a 12-inch whopper. Some chiles are spicier, and others are hotter - usually the smaller the chile, the fiercer its bite. A chile’s heat quotient can vary from tepid to tongue blistering hot.

Without dispute, Southern New Mexico offers the best and tastiest chile in the world. Just 30 miles northwest of Las Cruces is the village of Hatch, known as the Chile Capital of World. Hatch cultivates over 30,000 acres of the succulent pod and celebrates the harvest each Labor Day Weekend with a festival that includes chile roasting, chile contests, chile parades, and traditional chile dishes. Year round these savory victuals are listed on menus at many area restaurants. Once you sample these offerings, I think you’ll agree – there’s no place north of the border with better chile eats.

To help you on your culinary excursion and to familiarize you with our chile lingo and lore, I offer the following brief guide.

  • Chile or chili? Debates on the correct spelling are heated. Chile is the Spanish adaptation of chili, the Aztec name for the pod. Chili, at least in New Mexico, refers to Texas soup, prepared with diced or ground beef and chili powder (or both).
  • Chile powder vs. chili powder. Chile powder spelled with an “e” refers to pure ground, dried chile peppers. Chili powder spelled with an “i” is a powdered seasoning mix of dried chiles, garlic, oregano, cumin, coriander and cloves.
  • Red or green sauce? Chile is usually served as a green or red sauce. Its heat level or “bite” can vary from easygoing (1) to fiery hot (10). Before ordering, be sure to ask your waiter which is the “hot of the day.” Red sauce is also known as enchilada sauce since it’s often found in that dish. Compared with green sauce, red sauce has a rich earthy flavor and adds an unusually sweet punch to most dishes.
  • Chile painkiller. Dairy products like milk and yogurt – not water – dull the chile bite.
  • Red chiles. Green chiles that ripen on the vine turn red. The fresh pods are often “braided” into a ristra (a string of pods) and hung to sun dry. Once dried, they’re either ground or crushed for seasonings and sauces.
  • Green chiles. Before green chiles are used in cooking, they’re usually roasted in a wire mesh basket that rotates over a gas flame and then peeled. Green chiles are used in numerous recipes including relishes, sauces, stews and bread.
  • Chile rellenos. These are plump green chiles packed with cheese, dipped in cornmeal and then deep-fried.
  • Chorizo breakfast burrito. A flour tortilla rolled with scrambled egg bits, chopped onion, cubed potatoes, shredded cheese, red or green chile and chorizo, a spicy sausage.
  • Enchilada. Rolled or flat corn tortillas either topped or stuffed with meat, cheese, onion, and smothered in red or green chile sauce.
  • Tamales. Red chile pork wrapped in fresh masa (corn dough) and encased in a cornhusk. Tamales are also prepared as a sweet, a holiday tradition in Mexico. Sweet tamales are made with raisins, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, pecans and brown sugar.
  • Huevos rancheros (ranch-style eggs). Best breakfast. Fried eggs lavished with green sauce and garnished with tomatoes and onions.
  • Chilehead is an experienced chile chomper. The hotter the chile, the better the ‘head’.
  • Hotluck. A potluck centered on chile dishes.
  • Chile-fix. Chile is addictive. New Mexicans usually require a daily “fix.”
  • Chile “flashes” or sweating at the brow may occur after eating a particularly “hot” chile-laced dish. Chile flashes are similar to hot flashes but they’re self-induced and are gender non-specific.
  • Capsaisin [kap-SAY-ih-sihn] is what gives chiles their bite (and subsequent addictive qualities). The substance is localized around the stems, inner membranes and seeds.
  • Chile Pepper Institute, The. The Institute, located in Las Cruces at New Mexico State University, is an international non-profit organization devoted to education, research and the promotion of chile peppers. The director, Agronomy and Horticulture Professor Paul Bosland, is considered one of the leading chile pepper breeders in the world.
  • Hatch Chile Festival. The small village of Hatch, known as the Chile Capital of the World, cultivates over 30,000 acres of the succulent pod.
  • Each Labor Day Weekend the town, just 30 miles northwest of Las Cruces, celebrates the chile harvest by hosting a festival that includes chile roasting, chile contests, chile parades, and traditional chile dishes.
  • New Mexico State University Chile Teaching and Demonstration Garden. The garden is open daily and showcases more than 250 different varieties of exotic chiles. For more information, call 505-646-3405.
  • New Mexico Wine and Chile Festival. Chile contests and chile eats and plenty of New Mexico wine draws thousands of folks to this Memorial Weekend event.
  • Whole Enchilada Fiesta, The. Held the first weekend in October in downtown Las Cruces, the fiesta features parades, dances, Spanish music concerts and the making of the world’s largest enchilada, which is shared with more than 70,000 fiesta goers.